Changes to higher education in Australia are on the agenda — and differences in philosophies over education governance have created a row.
The last couple of weeks have seen staff members write to vice chancellors and key Senate crossbenchers persuading them to cut off university deregulation measures that have been advocated by federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne. Their letters highlight the insistence to not leave public universities to the “vagaries of the market”.
Important members of the Senate have continued to oppose the deregulation of university fees regardless of the Abbott government’s plans to reverse an order to reduce university funding by 20 percent. The move faced a high level of criticism from public universities who have argued that the cut would promote the increase of fees.
The government’s proposed plans were rejected late last year by the Senate, but Minister Pyne aims to bring the matter up for debate again when the Parliament resumes this year in February. Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that the changes were at the top of the government’s priority list for 2015.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne also mentioned that the government was willing to reduce the percentage of funds cut if the move was up for consideration from the Senate.
“We haven’t said that we will necessarily not go ahead with the savings measures in higher education but they are part of our negotiations with the crossbenchers because deregulation is vitally important. We will do whatever needs to be done to ensure our universities are the best they can be and that our students have the best opportunities they can have to go to university.”
The higher education reform plan was meant to save an overall of $4 billion in the budget over four years. Reversing the 20 percent reduction policy would, however, incur extra costs of an estimated $1.3 billion over the same time period, writes Matthew Knott of The Sydney Morning Herald.
The deregulation plans also include the goal of expanding federal funding to private colleges, TAFES and sub-bachelor degree programs, expecting to raise about $820 million in costs.
Senator Nick Xenophon remains against the call for deregulation and stated that the government’s higher education plans were in “a whole lot of trouble”. He however, admitted that there was a need for a review of the whole education system and any plans should be stalled till the review was complete.
“The only way forward as I see it is to have this review … let’s look at this calmly before we go through a robust reform process.”
He also stated that a deregulation of student fees would cause radical changes in the university industry.
Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne Glyn Davis, however, has taken a stand for allowing the deregulation of student fees.
“A generation ago, public universities received almost all their income from Canberra. This changed from 1989. Within a decade, public universities were raising most of their income. Today, direct Commonwealth recurrent funds cover just 23% of the running costs of the University of Melbourne. Like other Australian public universities, the University of Melbourne relies on student fees, competitive research grants, commercial activity and philanthropy to pay its staff, keep open the libraries and support student life. So, if majority Commonwealth funding is a defining characteristic, there is no “public” university in Australia.”
He also argued that such trends were also shared with universities of other nations, such as Oxford (which received just 16% of their operational costs) and the University of California, Berkeley (which received below 15% of its overall costs through base funding).
The universities have however been able to uphold their goals, ethos and culture through the employment of their self raised funds.